Moving Goalposts And Quarantine Fatigue

The press paid a lot of attention to the American people being out and about over the weekend.  In California, the media focused on people flocking to southern California beaches to surf, get some sun, and otherwise do what the Beach Boys told us people do on California beaches.  In New York, there were reports of lots of people out and about in Central Park.  Here in Columbus, we got some pretty spring days after a series of cold gloomy ones, and that caused a lot of people to get outside, too.

200323002623-03-california-beach-coronavirus-0321-super-teaseNone of this should be a surprise.  When the weather warms up in the spring, people naturally want to get outside and enjoy it, whether they live in California or Kalamazoo.  But these aren’t normal times, thanks to the coronavirus, and the press attention was all about people flouting governmental orders and not engaging in social distancing.

For the most part, I think Americans, and Ohioans, have done a pretty darned good job of abiding by unprecedented governmental orders.  For most of us who haven’t been sent to prison and didn’t experience governmental rationing or curfew orders during World War II, the coronavirus edicts are the biggest and most detailed governmental intrusions into our normal daily lives that we’ve ever experienced.  Given the history of contrarianism in the U.S., you’d expect there to be some resistance, but for the most part people have yielded, and accepted the need for the government efforts.  No one — and I mean no one — wants to kill people or see the country decimated by a fatal pandemic.

But government leaders need to understand that they can’t move the goalposts on us, either.  When the shutdown orders were first issued, they were presented as necessary to “flatten the curve,” protect health care resources from being overwhelmed, and give government time to shore up ventilator and mask supplies.  All of that has now been accomplished — and yet some are arguing that the restrictive orders should continue until . . . when or what, exactly?  I think many people have the sense that we’ve experienced a bait and switch, and the switch is happening right now.  The goalposts seem to be moving from flattening the curve to some point in the future that is more ambiguous and ill-defined — as if some government leaders and modelers and health care experts will “know it when they see it” and let the rest of us in on their decision at their leisure.  That perception is not exactly a recipe for broad societal compliance.

The sense of “quarantine fatigue” is real and, I think, is shared by many.  Part of it is people getting antsy, and part of it is spring fever, but I think part of it is just the notion that we weigh and accept risk as a matter of course, and build those risk-assessment decisions into our daily lives.  If you drive to work or take a driving vacation, you are increasing your risk of death in a traffic accident.  If you live in a house with a staircase, you are increasing your risk of a fatal fall.  But the government would never think (I hope) of banning driving, or multi-story family homes, or any of the other risks that we encounter and accept on a daily basis.

We all know, intuitively, that we can’t stay sheltering in place forever.  We need to get back to work and, equally important, to being permitted the freedom to make rational risk-weighing decisions about our lives.  If seniors who have health conditions and are in nursing homes are at high risk, by all means come up with tailored methods to protect them from COVID-19.  If wearing masks in subways has a discernible positive effect, by all means require them.  And if some people are so worried about the coronavirus that they want to work from home until a vaccine is successfully developed and they have a job that allows them to do so, fine.  But the sooner the government stops trying to ban people who have been penned up for 40 days from congregating outside on a beautiful warm day and starts communicating where we are right now and letting people make reasonable risk decisions, the better.

The Nazi Alternative Universe

We’ve been watching the excellent HBO mini-series The Plot Against America.  It’s a gripping, well-acted, and very difficult to watch story that is part of the “alternative history” genre.

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In the show, Charles Lindbergh — still a hero to millions for his solo flight across the Atlantic years before — decides to run for President in 1940 on an isolationist platform.  Lucky Lindy barnstorms across the country in the Spirit of St. Louis, giving the same short speech about America’s choice being between Lindbergh and war.  Lindbergh surprisingly defeats FDR, and the result is catastrophic for American Jews generally, and one Jewish family in particular, as the country slides into a cozy relationship with the Nazis, fascism, and virulent anti-Semitism.  (And I haven’t had the chance to watch the last episode yet, so no spoilers here.)

It’s a difficult show to watch, of course, because no one wants to see the kind of America depicted on the show — but as I watched I found myself thinking about the role of Nazi Germany in the alternative history genre of fiction.  So many books and shows revolve around “what if” questions in which the Germans win World War II — The Man in the High Castle is one recent example — that it almost seems as if Nazism was responsible for the creation of the alternative history genre in the first place.  And it’s interesting that, of all of the potential turning points of history, World War II seems to be the source of far more interest than others.  There might be alternative histories written about “what if” worlds in which, say, the British won the War of 1812, or the Kaiser emerged victorious in World War I, but if so there aren’t many of them, and they’ve remained in obscurity.  The Nazis, in contrast, always seem to take center stage.

Why, exactly, do the Nazis command so much more interest and attention?  Part of it is that their creed and philosophies were so murderous, hateful, and outlandish that it’s hard to believe that they controlled a country and were able to launch and fight a global war, and implement the Holocaust, less than 100 years ago.  There’s a certain amazement about the fact that it happened, and that the Nazis actually existed in an era of automobiles and planes and telephones.  That still-shocking realization gives a powerful narrative punch to alternative history stories about what might have happened had those terrible, soulless murderers won, even 80 years after the Nazis were hurled into the dustbin of history.

Whenever I see or read an alternative history about a Nazi triumph and what it would have meant for the United States, I’m always reminded of a quote from Tom Wolfe in the ’70s, when he observed that “the dark night of fascism is always descending in the United States and yet lands only in Europe.”  In short, people have long loved to predict that America is teetering on the brink of fascism and totalitarian repression.  World War II, perhaps, was the closest those predictions came to being realized.  Part of the reason that the Nazi alternative history genre is so crowded may be that the Nazis are a storytelling device that allows people to imagine that fascist America that has for so long been predicted, but has never come to pass.

I doubt that The Plot Against America will be the last alternative history in which America has fallen in World War II and fascism reigns in the former land of the free and home of the brave — and that’s OK.  Depictions of what a fascist America might look like helps us to keep our guard up.  That’s a big part of the reason that the “dark night of fascism” has never landed on our shores.

 

The Subway Vector

If you look at the New York Times map and chart of coronavirus cases and deaths in the United States, one fact screams out for attention:  the New York City metropolitan area has been far, far more affected by the epidemic than any other part of the country.  The disparity is profound.

As of today, the Times reports 34,726 deaths from COVID-19 in the U.S. — and fully half of those are in New York and New Jersey alone.  The incidence and mortality rates in those states are orders of magnitude higher than in other areas.  And it’s not the entire state of New York that is producing those staggering numbers, either.  Instead, the hot zone is for the most part limited to New York City and neighboring communities.

In fact, if you cut the New York City metropolitan area numbers out of the equation, you find that the per capita numbers for the rest of America are far less alarming than the overall numbers, and much more in line with the data reported from other countries.  The vast disparity in the virulence and transmission of the coronavirus in the New York City area, compared to the rest of the country, is compelling support for making decisions on reopening the country and the economy on a state-by-state, locality-by-locality basis.

6068390_040120-wabc-crowded-subway-imgThis drastic difference in the impact of COVID-19, though, begs the question:  why is the New York City area being hit so much harder than other areas?  Of course, it’s more densely populated than the rest of the country, which clearly must have an impact.  But there is an ongoing, increasingly heated controversy about whether New York City’s mass transit system — and, specifically, its subways — are a vector for transmission of the disease.  An MIT professor has looked at some data and argues that the subways are having a noticeable impact.  Others, including transit authority officials, contend that the MIT study is not scientifically valid and shows, at most, correlation — which is not causation.

It seems entirely plausible that subways could be a contributor to New York City’s bad coronavirus statistics.  If you’ve ever ridden the subway, you know that the platforms and cars are crowded, with people packed together, sharing metal poles as they steady themselves against the jostling of the cars, and also sharing limited breathing space.  The social distancing being practiced in other parts of the country just isn’t possible.  And, in my experience, the subway cars aren’t kept spotlessly clean, either.  If you compare that method of transportation to the “car culture” that prevails in other parts of the country, where most people travel in their own vehicles with windows closed, it could provide an explanation for at least part of the disparity in the coronavirus data.  At the very least, it is a possible cause and hypothesis that should be fully evaluated.

This is a hot-button issue, because New York City’s subway system is a primary source of transportation for hundreds of thousands of commuters every day, and if the subways are — after careful study and analysis, of course — determined to be a vector for transmission of COVID-19, that will dramatically complicate the process of reopening the Big Apple.  And mass transit is a political issue, as well, and there is a risk that political considerations will affect taking a hard look at the public health issues related to  subway use and operations in the wake of the coronavirus crisis.

Unfortunately, we’ve seen that our political officials can’t resist playing politics even in a time of global pandemic.  But at some point, public health considerations should trump petty political posturing.  We need to figure out why NYC is such a huge outlier, and then take steps to make sure that the causes for the disparity are properly addressed so that people in New York — and in the rest of the country — are protected the next time a virus sweeps across the world.

Nothing To Fear But Fear Itself

I read an interesting article the other day about how to get the economy back up and running — and, not incidentally, about understanding why the economy ground to a halt in the first place.  The article contends that it really wasn’t governmental shutdown orders that did the significant damage — it was fear.

Once people started to accept that the coronavirus really was serious and dangerous, and not just some grossly exaggerated boogeyman like so many over-hyped diseases of past years, they stopped doing what they were doing — even before government orders took effect, and even as to conduct that government orders still permit.  And when the American consumer, the primary cog in the greatest economic engine in the history of the world,  decides to change course, as a group, the consequences are profound.  The dominoes started falling, businesses saw sharp drop-offs in orders, and the unemployment rate ratcheted upward to levels we haven’t seen since the Great Depression.

img_9476And that’s where we are.  There’s still a lot of fear out there — among some people, at least — and that needs to be dealt with as part of the reopening process.  The author of the piece linked above contends that what we really need to deal with that general sense of fear is widespread availability of protective masks, and also widespread availability of reliable COVID-19 testing.  The masks may have a good effect toward preventing transmission of the disease when people are out in public, but they also may just make people feel safer, more secure, and more willing to go out to a store rather than ordering everything they might need through Amazon Prime.  Masks thus may have a tangible public health effect, but also a kind of calming placebo effect.  Some of the other steps that governmental guidance has outlined for reopening businesses — like having people coming to work take their temperatures — also seems like it will help to build confidence that going out in public doesn’t involve crushing risk.

The testing is equally important, because it might finally provide us with the data that will give us a real sense of just what the coronavirus is, how many people have it or have already had it, and what its mortality rate truly is.  And while it might be fun, politically, to castigate our political leaders for not having millions of tests readily available for a disease that was totally unknown until a few months ago, I don’t see the value in playing the blame game.  Once most testing is done — and particularly more random testing of the general population, rather than testing only those people who already are in extremis physically — we’ll have a better sense of the real risks of a return to normalcy.

For all of the scary headlines about mounting death tolls, there are tantalizing indications in some of the general testing of certain populations that has been done that the coronavirus is far more widespread that health authorities have believed, and that the vast majority of the cases don’t cause serious health issues.  According to the CDC website, accessed today, the people who are really at risk seem to be senior citizens — especially those in certain nursing homes — and people with significant, pre-existing medical conditions, like respiratory illness, compromised immunity systems, or morbid obesity.  If general testing is done and it confirms that the real risk of coronavirus is limited to certain vulnerable populations, then we can step to provide protections specifically designed for those populations — and people who don’t fall into those high-risk populations can start to go about their business.  That concept, not incidentally, will require the news media to accurately report boring test data, rather than focusing on death counts.  When scary headlines are producing lots of clicks and website traffic, that might be asking for a lot.

One of our greatest Presidents, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, famously told the American people in the midst of the Great Depression that “we have nothing to fear but fear itself.”  That admonition seems apt as we move into the post-shutdown phase of the Great Coronavirus Crisis of 2020.  If we’re going to get the economy going, help people who have been thrown out of work, and bring the unemployment rate down, a lot of frightened people are going to have to conquer their fears and accept the risks inherent with doing things like shopping and eating in public.  Having better data — and better reporting of data — will help.

From Behind The Bureaucratic Curtain

Kish and I have watched some of the federal coronavirus task force briefings.  I know they are a flash point for many people.  Some people hate the President’s bombastic, promotional approach to presenting information and answering questions, and others react viscerally to the pugnacious inquiries that members of the White House press corps throw at him.  But we want to get overall information about how things are going, and the briefings are the most direct way to accomplish that — and if we have to swallow bombast and some combative exchanges with journalists in the process, so be it.

Deborah Birx, Anthony Fauci, Mike PenceThe best and most interesting parts of the briefings, in our view, happen after the parts that the news media focuses on, when the President and the Vice President turn things over to the COVID-19 task force members and other officials who are managing parts of the response to the coronavirus.  There’s no doubt that President Trump has a huge ego, but to his credit he is quite willing to share the White House podium with other officials, and he lets them directly take and answer questions, too.  As a result, we get to see and learn about the real people who are dealing, every day, with this maelstrom.

Dr. Deborah Birx and her endless supply of colorful scarves is one of the mainstays of the briefings.  When she’s not coordinating the American response to a global pandemic, Dr. Birx is an Ambassador-at-Large in the State Department, where she is the Coordinator of the United States Government Activities to Combat HIV/AIDS and U.S. Special Representative for Global Health Diplomacy.  Another mainstay of the briefings is the earnest Dr. Anthony Fauci, who has served as the Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases since 1984.  Like most doctors, Dr. Birx and Dr. Fauci radiate caution and credibility, and we always are interested in what they have to say about the data, the curve, the hot spots, and the litany of other health care challenges posed by the scourge of COVID-19.

And we also typically get to hear from other people in the alphabet soup of federal agencies that are found throughout the executive branch of the national government.  We’ve heard from the heads of the Department of the Treasury, the Department of Labor, the Small Business Administration, the Centers for Disease Control, and the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, the Navy admiral tasked with managing the logistics headaches in supplying the “hot spots” with masks and gloves and ventilators from the federal stockpile, and Vice President Mike Pence, who supervises the task force — and that’s just scratching the surface.  Because the impact of the coronavirus is so broad, if you watch the daily briefings you’re bound to see and hear from somebody new who is dealing with some specific aspect of the federal response to the coronavirus.

For those who reflexively dismiss “bureaucrats,” the briefings are probably a real eye-opener.  The people who stand behind the podium, provide us with up-to-the-minute and detailed information, and then answer questions forthrightly all come across as smart, experienced, well-spoken, knowledgeable people who are motivated by a sincere desire to do the best job they possibly can to help the country through an extraordinary crisis.  And the briefings are a good way to see what the federal government brings to bear in a crisis:  not just stockpiles of ventilators and doses of medication and an Army Corps of Engineers that can throw up thousand-bed hospitals in the blink of an eye, but also lots of capable, hard-working people with undoubted expertise who can be trusted to tackle a problem and execute a plan.

The coronavirus pandemic has been a weird learning experience in more ways that we can count, but through these daily briefings and the direct statements of task force members we’ve gotten a peek behind the bureaucratic curtain to see those people who are at ground zero of our national response.  It’s been interesting, and reassuring.  Say what you will about the “deep state,” and criticize President Trump’s managerial style all you want, but if you watch those briefings I think you’ll come away impressed by the sprawling team that is trying to navigate our country through an unprecedented public health crisis.  I have been, at least.

The Laboratories Of Democracy At Work

Amidst all of the focus on the federal government government and its response to the coronavirus pandemic, many people have forgotten that, in our system of government, it is the states that have the power to make the truly important decisions.  They’re about to be reminded about that.

51ryo5scx7l._ac_sy400_The response to COVID-19 has actually been a good illustration of how America is supposed to work — and why we’re called the United States in the first place.  The federal government can offer guidance, and can coordinate how the national stockpiles of ventilators and masks and hospital gowns are distributed among the states according to need and forecasts, but it is the states, each a separate sovereign government with a separate sphere of responsibility, that have made the really big decisions about how to deal with the scourge of COVID-19.

States can, and do, take different approaches to issues — which is why Justice Brandeis long ago described states as the “laboratories of democracy.”  In Ohio, we’ve been under a state-ordered lockdown decree for weeks, and most states have similar lockdown orders, but each of the orders varies in terms of who may work, who is considered essential, and what businesses may operate.  Notably, a number of states, primarily in the middle swath of the United States, have not issued lockdown orders at all.  (And, in case you’re curious, those states for the most part have low rates of COVID-19 cases and COVID-19 related deaths, according to the New York Times state tracking tool.)

I say above that we’re going to see a real reminder of the importance of state decision-making very soon because we’re rapidly approaching the point where the states that have been shut down are going to be deciding when, and how, to get back to work.  On Friday, for example, Texas Governor Greg Abbott said he expects to issue an executive order on reopening businesses in this coming week.  Ohio Governor Mike DeWine hasn’t given a deadline, but has said he also is working on an order to reopen the state for business.  We can expect many other states whose statistics are at the low end of the coronavirus incidence rate list to also be looking to get back to normal, and probably sooner rather than later.

Having a state-centric approach is unnerving to some people, who think centralized decision-making is by definition better decision-making.  Having the states act as “laboratories of democracy” in deciding how to reopen after a pandemic seems like the right approach to me, however.  The United States is a big country, and conditions differ significantly from state to state, in ways that are directly relevant to dealing with shutdown orders and pandemics.  Some states are rural, some are industrial.  Some states are densely populated, and some are so wide open it’s breathtaking.  It makes no sense that Wyoming, say, should be on the same timetable as New York or subject to the same requirements as New York.  In reality, governors and state officials know their states far better than federal officials ever could, and they can and will make decisions that are tailored to the needs of their specific constituents.

We should all pay attention, because we’re getting a real-life, real-time civics lesson — and the lessons will continue in the coming days and weeks.  If the national news media is smart, they’ll start paying a little more attention to the different states and how those state officials are deciding how to restart things.

All Together Now

As I’ve taken walks around Schiller Park over the last few days, I’ve noticed that people are interested in publicly expressing their collective community spirit.  The above sign appeared in the window of the Hausfrau Haven, and I’ve seen similar messages chalked onto sidewalks — like “#RallyColumbus.”  It’s all part of an effort by the common folk to show some mutual support, and let their fellow citizens know that we’re all in this together, and that together we will get through our coronavirus trial.

I’m confined to the German Village area, of course, so I can’t say for sure, but I suspect that the signs and sidewalk messages I’ve seen here are just the very small tip of a much larger iceberg that can be found across the country.  Americans have a way of coming together during difficult times, helping each other out, and working to lift each others’ spirits.  Our political representatives might fight like the gingham dog and the calico cat, but the people stand together during the tough times — and messages that express that sentiment in a tangible way, for all to see, really help.  And, of course, there’s a lot more that we can’t see publicly that also reflects a fighting, mutually supportive spirit, like texts among groups of friends and co-workers and e-mail chains and virtual get-togethers and Facebook memes.

The attitude of toughness and resiliency makes me think of one of my favorite Beatles’ songs and video snippets, which appeared at the end of the Yellow Submarine film — All Together Now.  Let’s hope that we can maintain that ‘tude, and it will carry us through.